Birtherism — the repeatedly debunked conspiracy theory that President Barack Obama is not a legitimate American citizen — has made a comeback in the political discourse, and oddly enough it's the first couple resurrecting it.
In her acclaimed address before the Democratic National Convention on Monday, first lady Michelle Obama talked about encouraging her daughters Sasha and Malia to “ignore those who question their father’s citizenship or faith.” On Wednesday, the president himself made a quip about his Kansas ancestors' emigrating without their birth certificates in tow during his DNC speech.
Neither mentioned Donald Trump by name during those moments, but anyone who followed the now-GOP presidential nominee's relatively recent crusade on behalf of the birther movement would recognize who they were referencing. Although Trump has teased a potential foray into politics for years, his aggressive attacks on the president's personal history vaulted him into a prominent position in Republican party politics.
As the New York Times reported earlier this month: "The more Mr. Trump questioned the legitimacy of Mr. Obama’s presidency, the better he performed in the early polls of the 2012 Republican field, springing from fifth place to a virtual tie for first."
Trump spent several weeks questioning the president's birthplace, his religion, even his academic performance — at one point offering a hefty financial reward for dirt on his past and allegedly sending investigators to Obama's home state of Hawaii to unearth proof of any illegitimacy.
When Obama begrudgingly released his longform birth certificate, which confirmed his American citizenship in a surreal press conference in April of 2011, Trump claimed victory and praised himself for forcing the president's hand. Still, he never has expressed regret for his actions or publicly acknowledged that the president is indeed an American citizen.
Trump did, however, claim that his team of sleuths discovered "absolutely unbelievable" information that was presumably unflattering to President Obama. "At a certain point in time I'll be revealing some interesting things," Trump said in a CNN interview at the height of the controversy. "You'll be very surprised."
But as of today, he has never divulged his alleged findings to the public. According to the Times, Dr. Alvin Onaka, the current Hawaii state registrar, who would have been handling any inquiries into Obama's medical information at the time, has said "he had no evidence or recollection of Mr. Trump or any of his representatives ever requesting the records" from the state's Department of Health.
Still, as recently as last year, Trump has questioned the birth certificate's authenticity, and, in a move that echoes his recent overtures to Russian hackers, he even once encouraged fugitive NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden to "reveal Obama's records."
Despite his current antipathy towards the real estate mogul, 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney eagerly sought Trump's endorsement that election cycle, in a testament to his growing clout. Today Romney and his advisers have tried to distance themselves from Trump's birtherism, but it clearly endeared him to a large segment of the GOP electorate, who chose him as their presidential nominee amid a field of 16 more experienced candidates just four years later.
“I don’t think it was a distraction. A lot of people love me for it. I got him to produce his so-called birth certificate, or whatever it was,” Trump boasted during a 2014 press conference. “You might say it is a distraction. I tell you, I have more fans and more followers, I have millions of people coming up to me on the street saying, ‘Don’t give that fight up.’"
But Trump did give the fight up, at least publicly, when he became a viable candidate for the White House last summer. He has repeatedly said he doesn't talk about birtherism "anymore" when he has been asked about it in interviews. More recently, he has said he would "love to" bring it up, but fears it would serve as a distraction for his campaign. He has also deflected criticism about his statements onto his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, claiming she was the "original" birther.
While it's true that a few Clinton supporters did internally circulate questions about Obama's authenticity as an American during the 2008 campaign, it didn't gain traction within her campaign and was never advanced as a talking point by Clinton during the race.
NBC News reached out to the Trump campaign to find out if they have an official position on President Obama's citizenship, but they have not yet responded at this time.
Meanwhile, Trump may be forced to yet again confront what MSNBC's Chris Matthews has called his "original sin," taking up the birther cause and running with it. Trump's campaign has already been struggling mightily with minority voters (two recent NBC News swing state polls had him registering zero percent support from African-Americans), and being linked to an undeniably racially insensitive cause could do further damage to his reputation.
Still, despite a checkered history on issues of race, black audiences routinely tuned into "The Apprentice" (although he once floated the idea of a racially divided season), and he was even romanticized as an aspirational figure by some members of the hip-hop community. All of that was before he became a real contender for the White House.
Now, with voters of color playing a potentially decisive role in a number of swing states, Trump's birther rhetoric (coupled with his critiques of Muslims and Mexicans) could come back to haunt him. While in the past he had trolled the president for everything from the way he walks to his lack of a tie — there is an undeniable racial component to birtherism that is unsettling to many Americans.
But so far Trump has been untroubled by the terrible numbers. He and his surrogates have predicted that he will have "surprising" success with African-American voters, and the candidate himself has pledged to compete for 100 percent of the black vote, despite a series of awkward racial gaffes on the campaign trail, his dalliances with white supremacist supporters, his antagonism towards the Black Lives Matter movement and his recent, unsubstantiated assertion that Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin had used the N-word in reference to the first black president.
The Obamas have largely taken the 'above the fray' approach on the birther issue. With the exception of the occasional scripted joke on the president's part, it has never been a subject that they appeared interested in dignifying. But when Michelle Obama in particular wrung pathos from detailing the effect Trump's rhetoric had on their children, it could have resonated in a new way.
Although a large portion of the GOP electorate still believes the president is not American, the consensus among the wider swath of the American public is that birtherism is a fringe movement. As Democrats continue to make the case that Trump is unfit for the Oval Office, his commitment to questioning a now quite popular president's heritage will be an unprecedented weapon in their arsenal.
Case in point, in their first joint campaign appearance earlier this month, Hillary Clinton described President Obama as "someone who has never forgotten where he came from. And Donald, if you're out there tweeting, it's Hawaii."